Geneva’s Grand Théâtre Reopens With Dieter Dorn’s Ring Revival

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: – Soloists, Chœur du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Georg Fritzsch (conductor). Grand Théâtre de Genève, 12 – 17.2.2019 (ALL)

Grand Théâtre de Genève’s Götterdämmerung © GTG/Carole Parodi

Director – Dieter Dorn
Settings and Costumes – Jürgen Rose
Dramaturgy – Hans-Joachim Ruckhäberle
Lightning – Tobias Löffler

Das Rheingold
Wotan — Tómas Tómasson
Loge — Stephan Rügamer
Alberich — Tom Fox
Fricka — Ruxandra Donose
Erda — Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Mime — Dan Karlström
Fasolt — Alexey Tikhomirov
Fafner — Taras Shtonda
Donner — Stefan Genz
Froh — Christoph Strehl
Freia — Agneta Eichenholz
Woglinde — Polina Pastirchak
Wellgunde — Carine Séchaye
Flosshilde — Ahlima Mhamdi

Die Walküre
Brünnhilde — Petra Lang
Wotan — Tómas Tómasson
Sieglinde — Michaela Kaune
Siegmund — Will Hartmann
Fricka — Jamie Barton
Hunding — Alexey Tikhomirov
Siegrune — Héloïse Mas
Grimgerde — Rena Harms
Ortlinde — Marion Ammann
Gerhilde — Katja Levin
Rossweisse — Roswitha Christina Müller
Schwertleite — Ahlima Mhamdi
Helmwige — Karen Foster
Waltraute — Lucie Roche

Siegfried — Michael Weinius
Brünnhilde — Petra Lang
Mime — Dan Karlström
The Wanderer — Tómas Tómasson
Alberich — Tom Fox
Fafner — Taras Shtonda
Erda — Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Forest Bird — Mirella Hagen

Brünnhilde — Petra Lang
Siegfried — Michael Weinius
Gunther — Mark Stone
Hagen — Jeremy Milner
Waltraute — Michelle Breedt
Gutrune — Agneta Eichenholz
Alberich — Tom Fox
First Norn — Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Second Norn — Roswitha Christina Müller
Third Norn — Karen Foster
Woglinde — Polina Pastirchak
Wellgunde — Carine Séchaye
Flosshilde — Ahlima Mhamdi

For once in Geneva neither the artists nor the music were the center of attention: rather it was the re-opening of the revered and beloved Grand Théâtre after three long years of much overdue repair, during which performances were given at the Opéra des Nations, which is currently being dismantled and sent to China.

The new building is quite a revelation. We had all been accustomed to its condition after it caught fire in 1951 during a performance of … Die Walküre. But now most of the artwork has been restored as originally intended. The main entrance displays strikingly vivid colours and the foyer is simply sumptuous. The overall security system has been upgraded. New sections have been created to facilitate the artists’ work. The famous ‘Milky Way’ on the ceiling has been re-done and the spiral of light gradually dims as the conductor enters. All you have to do is blink or fail to look up and you will miss it – but if you catch it, it is a splendid sight to see.

Former Geneva Mayor Rémy Pagani, who joined the end of the tour of the building, explained that 52 million Swiss francs were spent on the renovation – not an enormous amount for a project of this magnitude, as he hastened to point out. The work ran over schedule by only four months (and perhaps Fasolt and Fafner were not available as they were busy building Valhalla …), which is less than usual.

He also explained how Geneva is investing in infrastructure and culture. The new CEVA train system will link several of the French cities surrounding Geneva. It will be inaugurated at the end of 2019. The new modern station will include a stage for theatre productions.

There had been press events in the runup to opening night, but nothing on the big day itself, so that if felt as if the Grand Théâtre were just putting on a regular performance, which was quite surprising. Yet another Swiss understatement…or a hidden agenda?

During the performances there were teething troubles. There was a rumbling noise at the beginning of Das Rheingold. It did not help that the conductor was making his debut in this building and at the head of the Swiss Romande Orchestra (OSR). The sound of the entire Rheingold was far too weak. Perhaps the pit was adjusted subsequently, as things improved markedly for Die Walküre and thereafter, with the sound back to normal. Another issue was a glass lamp that fell into one of the boxes at the first balcony during the first act of Götterdämmerung. Thankfully no one was hurt, but the sound was quite something. The musicians, all great professionals, did not miss a beat.

This Ring revival was the work that had long been planned for the reopening. It is difficult to assess the exact impact of this delay on casting, but several initial members of the team were absent and were sorely missed, the greatest loss being that of Ingo Metzmacher in the pit. Georg Fritzsch was ‘kapellmeisterisch’. While his reading was competent, he did not master the difficult acoustics of the theatre. The essential support needed for the singers was lacking. The sheer physicality that a drama like the Ring requires was simply not there.

The orchestral level of the OSR varied throughout the evenings. The first night was truly disappointing, although much of this could have been due to the circumstances. Die Walküre had much better playing and the OSR was ‘as we know them’. The level dropped, however, on the two subsequent evenings. Going past the ‘entrée des artistes’ after the performance of Siegfried, I noticed several young musicians and wondered about the impact of hiring – how many? – supplementary musicians for such a massive endeavour.

Another source of disappointment was the chorus, who are are usually one of the greatest assets of the Grand Théâtre. And yet were embarrassingly out of synch for their big moments in the second act of Götterdämmerung, and there were some fairly chaotic moments. Hopefully things will settle quicly, but this was the first time they did not live up to their usual standards.

A work with as many characters as the Ring often offers a large variety of singing. Some of the voices heard five years ago, about which Jim Pritchard expressed caution in his reviews, were still there. Both Michaela Kaune and Will Hartmann do not have all that is required for Sieglinde and Siegmund. Tom Fox struggled as Wotan in the first run, and while he was somewhat better this time as Alberich, made us miss the remarkable performance of John Lundgren. A few voices in Rheingold are starting to show their age and the Rhinemaidens were perhaps the most affected by the lack of support from the pit. Alexey Tikhomirov’s Hunding was often forced and made us long for Günther Groissböck, who had so much more presence and menace. Jeremy Milner’s reading of Hagen was also a disappointment. His voice was powerful but lacked the dark tones required by the role.

But there were some inspired choices. Tómas Tómasson has the scale of a Wotan. The voice has nice dark undertones and he definitely has the authority of the tormented God. Stephan Rügamer as Loge showed genuine Wagnerian singing ability by combining a keen sense of line and care for words. Wiebke Lehmkuhl was a thrilling Erda (and first Norn) with sonorous low notes. Agneta Eichenholz, Lulu at Covent Garden, was a lovely Gutrune. In the most terrifying role for any tenor, Michael Weinius proved that he has pleasantly ringing notes and whenever Wagner’s music allowed, could phrase convincingly. Petra Lang was the centre of this initial Ring five years ago. The voice has changed somewhat, and a few high notes may not have the same colour. But her stage presence remains a force to reckon with, giving her great authority, particularly in Götterdämmerung. She also still undoubtedly has the dimension and ‘grandeur’ of a genuine Wagnerian singer.

Dieter Dorn’s staging remains compelling. Here is a master story-teller who does not feel any need to offer a reinterpretation of Wagner’s work. The story was told as it is, and the action was easy to follow. The sets were minimal but convincing and varied. All elements were there, but without resorting to ‘Zeffirelli-like’ realism or radical re-inventions. Dieter Dorn was present for all performances and he obviously took part in the rehearsals. His Personenregie was very strong, but with many subtle touches.

One should not expect the standards of Munich or Vienna in Geneva, but nonetheless this Ring failed to convince as a whole. Geneva has flourishing ambitions and has been given back a beautiful theatre, but future projects must to be considered more carefully.

We should all rejoice over the beautifully renovated Grand Théâtre, but was the Ring the ideal work to reopen it with?

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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